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Journal of Democracy 13.3 (2002) 153-165

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Cape Verde:
An African Exception

Peter Meyns


At a time when there is a widespread conviction that various obstacles are preventing African countries from advancing to democratic consolidation and that the main issue is whether democratic regimes will survive at all, 1 the small West African island republic of Cape Verde stands out as a successful case of political reform. In January and February 2001, this Portuguese-speaking country of slightly more than 400,000 people held its third parliamentary and presidential elections since its democratic opening began in 1990. The result was that the African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde (PAICV), which had been ousted from office by the Movement for Democracy (MPD) in 1991, regained a majority in the National Assembly and saw its favored candidate win the presidency. Although the elections were hotly contested and not free of complaints about vote-rigging, respect for the rule of law and democratic competition prevailed.

Few other African countries have experienced a renewed change of government after successful founding elections, Benin and São Tomé and Príncipe being among them. A few others have also recorded notable changes of government through elections in recent years, including Ghana, Senegal, and of course Mauritius, where this has occurred more often than anywhere else in Africa. While countries such as Botswana or South Africa, where a single party enjoys sustained electoral dominance, can still be candidates for democratic consolidation, the experience worldwide has been that extended rule by a single party, even if legitimated by elections, more often than not undermines accountability and transparency.

What makes the comparative success of Cape Verde's democratic [End Page 153] development additionally interesting is that Cape Verde belongs to the group of African countries in which anticolonial liberation movements took over power after independence. Together with the other Portuguese colonies in Africa, Cape Verde achieved independence only after protracted struggle and the eventual overthrow of the corporatist regime in Lisbon in 1974. That Cape Verde's postcolonial history and recent democratic transition have been free of the violent upheavals that have thrown countries like Angola and Mozambique into disarray underlines the need to look at what makes each country unique. In Cape Verde's case this involves its structural and historical features as an island state in the Atlantic, its postcolonial institutional setup, and the nature of the changes that began in 1990-91.

One Party in Two Countries

When Cape Verde achieved independence in 1975, it shared a unique feature with Guinea-Bissau, another former Portuguese colony located on the West African coast, whose independence—at first proclaimed unilaterally—had been confirmed by the new rulers in Lisbon in 1974. In both countries, the same liberation movement, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), took over power from the colonial administration. From there the two countries took profoundly different paths, however. A coup d'état in Guinea-Bissau in 1980 provoked a formal rupture within the PAIGC and led to the formation of the PAICV by the Cape Verdean wing of the PAIGC.

Portugal had employed Cape Verdeans in its colonial administration, especially in Guinea-Bissau. When the independence movement was launched in Guinea-Bissau, therefore, some Cape Verdeans were involved in the core group. The founding father and outstanding leader of the PAIGC, Amilcar Cabral, was born in Guinea-Bissau of Cape Verdean parents. He was the prime architect of the concept of unity between Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. Realizing that it would be difficult to conduct the anticolonial struggle on the islands and that Portugal was likely to try to draw them more closely into its own fold, his idea was to link them to Guinea-Bissau in order to achieve independence in both countries and, at a later stage, unity between them. But his thinking went beyond liberation strategy. For him unity was also a cultural notion emphasizing the African vocation of Cape Verde and its people against all colonial intentions.

In retrospect, Cabral's concept of unity...